From a couple of thousand feet above sea level, she still looks like a giant concentration camp. Tiny matchbox balconies hug each other, enveloped by clouds of smog and soot. Salesmen and factory workers jostle for space, water and air in its winding, clogged arteries. Dharavi is still Asia’s biggest slum and an infamous epilogue to the Mumbai story. But then, there’s the new Dharavi.
It was my third walk through Dharavi in a decade, and it has always been for leather. The shops have faded since 1996, the young have replaced the old and the bags have started looking like poor imitations of Hidesign. Of course, the leather you can buy in Dharavi’s “90-feet lane” (that’s what it’s officially called) are still either surplus stock or export rejects.
The small leather tanneries from which leather goods are exported, seemed dwarfed and worn out, but there was more buzz. Early last year, The Economist reviewed the leather market here and reported that it amounted to up to $500 million (Rs2,200 crore). Unbelievable, considering my bags have never cost more than Rs1,000 here. This is how the market functions: The leather hides come from slaughter houses in Deonar, an eastern suburb. The workers treat them with salt to smoothen them and then send them to Chennai for processing. The final products come back for the finishing touches.
The superficial changes were obvious, but something about the fabric of Dharavi seemed to have changed. Even six years ago, a chaotic mechanism was in place here. Vats of molten soap would bubble on one side; paint cans, scrap plastic and paper would lie heaped on another; and the shrill, metallic drone of workers hammering on steel and wire would be audible over the collective hum of people. Dharavi functioned in contrast to South Mumbai and suburbs dotted by “builder’s buildings” and brand shops. Now, a Rs5,600-crore redevelopment plan is in place here. Its proximity to the Western Express Highway and the Bandra-Kurla Complex, a fast-growing commercial area, is luring real-estate developers.
And Dharavi’s people are aware of it. While bargaining at one of the leather stalls, a young guy walked by with a British couple. He must have been around 15, but adept at getting his share of the slum tourism market. Slum tourism is a relatively new phenomenon here, as in other cities and their slums. When he told the couple about the things that were going to happen to Dharavi in the future, their disappointment was impossible to miss.
I couldn’t help feel a pang of empathy with the couple. I’ve passed by Sion-Mahim Link Road and its numerous shops (their names are variations of “Quality Leather” or “Top Leather”), and walked through Dharavi like an outsider, imagining its alternate reality, its cheering claim to life amid metallic sounds and petty crime.
While struggling to get out of the 90-feet lane with a red leather tabletop in my hand (still possible to acquire at Dharavi for Rs1,200), I got talking to the British couple. A girl, of about 18, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, approached us. “Mere paas yeh hai, massage machine, imported. Usko bolo na lene ke liye, 500 rupees (I have this, a massage machine, imported. Please ask them to buy it for Rs500),” she said to me. I looked at the blue packet. “Purple Blaster”, the flimsy paper label said.
Sex toys replacing sex workers? That’s too much change to swallow on one trip.
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